The Final Frontier
Exponential innovation in our oceans
In this episode of the EarthSci Show, I discuss with Dr. Yi Chao ( Seatrec, Forbes, former Research Meteorologist at NASA JPL) the dynamics of seafloor mapping, what his company Seatrec does to accelerate such a process and where he envisions Ocean Exploration and Blue technology in the decades to come.
I hope you enjoy this episode of the EarthSci Show, it is available down below and on all platforms!
Watch on Youtube.
The Final Frontier waiting to be explored does not lie above us, but it does below.
Take a closer look at 70% of our planet and you will realise just how little we know about it - in fact, almost nothing at all.
It is said that an area almost twice the size of Mars remains unmapped on Earth
However, as I said in a previous article, efforts to map the seafloor are underway with organisations such as the Nippon Foundation- GEBCO Seabed 2030 organisation that aim to map the seafloor by 2030. You can read that article right here.
But I cannot help but think that nobody cares about the state or rate of mapping of our seas. All I can see in the media is Space Exploration and how far that will take us in the cosmos,
we often search for answers in the heavens, thinking there is a solution to our problems on Earth out in the stars, but often we forget about the potential of the bodies that brought us life, our oceans, and the solutions that they bring to the table that most hadn't even considered before.
This realisation should be widespread, on a national and international scale so that we, as a species can collectively change the way we think about sustainability and resource management, all the while, ensuring that the technology that we use is pollution-free and low cost.
So with this in mind, I had the honour to talk to Dr. Yi Chao, who is the Founder and CEO of the company, Seatrec, who aim to increase the efficiency and sustainability of floatation devices that ultimately map the seafloor, and I think you are going to want to keep reading to find out exactly how they do that.
Dr. Chao is also a Council Member at Forbes and used to work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) at Caltech (you may have heard them in the news recently as being responsible for putting the famous Perseverance Rover on Mars).
What Dr. Chao's company aim to do is make floatation devices self-sufficient and independent of boats and batteries that pollute the seas such as Lithium ones.
In order to map the seafloor, you need to use boats with devices called multi-beam or single beam echo sounders that produce a single or fan shaped sound wave acoustic through the water, which bounces off the seafloor and is picked up by the boat/float sensors - this is the basis of how Sonar technology works on vehicles like Submarines.
We found that just using boats isn't enough, so companies like Seatrec and also Government led Organisations such as NOAA (National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration) build floatation devices or floats as Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV's) that extend the footprint covered by ships by a large magnitude.
But, because such AUV's have a finite battery capacity, it means that with today's battery technology, 20% of floats such as the ARGO Network floats need to be replaced each year after falling to the seafloor, polluting the water and posing a real threat to ecosystems.
In addition, it is quite expensive to deploy so many AUV's every year to map such a large unexplored area, so really, we need AUV's that represent a solution with assets such as :
Low cost (maintenance and construction)
Long mission life
Low environmental footprint
Low dependence on Mother Ships
"A survey conducted by OCEANOB's19 conference suggested that energy is the largest barrier and challenge for sustained ocean observation systems". This is the problem that Seatrec are tackling as I write these words.
What they do, is they use the temperature differentials in the ocean water to harvest energy.
a new way to harvest energy
How this works, is the AUV's have Phase Change Materials (PCM's) that change state as they release or absorb energy. So, in this scenario, the solid transitions into a liquid, causing the volume of the PCM to increase, expanding, and exerting pressure on the walls of the container. This initiates mechanical energy transfer, which is then converted into kinetic and then electrical energy which is used to power the AUV float.
So, as you can see, the way that the floats made by Seatrec work ensure that their reliance on ships and polluting batteries is significantly reduced, allowing them to be self-sufficient and self-powered.
I truly believe that the more we rely on self-sufficient floats to map our seas, the greater their footprint - one that could have never been achieved by boats. So, the way I see it, is that the more trust we put into such 'blue technology' and its capabilities, the faster we will be able to map even the deepest parts of our oceans, such as the trenches no one speaks about; doing all of this to a large degree of accuracy with a high resolution.
It's shocking that maps of the moon are down the metres in resolution, whereas on our own planet it is down to kilometers.
time, money, and health
Dr. Chao's company Seatrec aim to focus on sustainability, how they can cover as much ground underwater but still have minimal environmental footprint. This is very difficult to achieve indeed and requires some time too, but I am confident that they will be able to cut down marine pollution in such a way by the targeted goal set by Seabed 2030.
One other thing that is a concern for companies like Seatrec is the economic scalability of operations, simply because to map the remaining 80% of the ocean,
that requires 300 ship years to do so.
But this would cost $5 billion, a 'price tag difficult to accomplish'.
This is the reason that Seatrec develop robotic technologies - but they have a high energy demand. This is where strategically placing their PCM technology comes in handy, whereby they can modify the calibre of the sensors based on the depth at which the floats go.
So, the idea is to use low power sensors with lower energy demands at deeper depths where less energy is available to be harvested as the temperature differences are not as frequent; this compares to the surface autonomous vessels that can rely on solar and wind energy to power themselves and map what they can from the surface.
However, with such strategies in mind, Dr. Chao anticipates that we'll be able to map the gaps in the next decade by placing thousands of floats across the now 5 oceans on Earth and making the best use of PCM technology and the extended mission life of the floats, hence indicating that Seabed 2030's goal of a full map by 2030 is a realistic one indeed.
why should you care?
NOAA, Department of Defence, NASA, the US-Navy, Federal Governments
What links them all is that they all invest in ocean technology, or 'blue technology' as it is formally called.
Whilst Ocean science may come under the shadow of Space science, our seas still matter and are not forgotten - by mapping our seas we can tap into resources that we often take for granted like large protein sources, clean biofuel, as well as the ability to tackle climate change with a greater knowledge of the dynamics of our oceans' health.
The blue economy and technology are powerful resources in the Final Frontier of exploration on Earth.
We have explored Space more than our own oceans.
this shocks me, it really does - and I'm happy that I got the chance to talk to Dr. Yi Chao about how we can change this and accelerate:
the rate at which ocean science becomes more popular
the rate at which we have a complete map of the oceans
the way we implement the benefits of our seas onto human society
I'd like to thank Dr. Chao for his time and for imparting his knowledge with me in this episode of The EarthSci Show.
Seatrec Deep Technology - https://seatrec.com/technology/
Seatrec Products - https://seatrec.com/products/
Mapping The Seafloor: Time To Hit The Accelerator - https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2021/05/14/mapping-the-seafloor-time-to-hit-the-accelerator/?sh=13bd11e457d9
Phase Change Materials - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phase-change_material#:~:text=A%20phase%20change%20material%20(PCM,to%20provide%20useful%20heat%2Fcooling.&text=By%20melting%20and%20solidifying%20at,compared%20to%20sensible%20heat%20storage.